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Vino Farms vineyard management company to pay $1.4 million to settle lawsuit over worker pay, breaks

Jeremy Hay

Jul 15, 2023

One of the largest vineyard management firms in Sonoma County has settled a lawsuit alleging it shortchanged workers over pay, or allowed meal and rest breaks.

One of Sonoma County’s largest vineyard management companies has agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging it failed to pay workers for all the hours they worked and failed to allow workers meal and rest breaks.

Lodi-based Vino Farms, which farms about 4,300 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County, according to the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, has been the recent target locally of farmworkers and their advocates over its labor practices.

The lawsuit was brought in 2021 on behalf of a Vino Farms’ employee in San Joaquin County. The settlement covers 537 workers employed by the company statewide between July 2017 and September 2022.

It’s not known how many Sonoma County workers are covered by the settlement.

“Truthfully, it’s good. They treated people very badly,” said Gildardo Lopez, 30, a former Vino Farms worker who has been told the settlement applies to him. He said he worked on “the line“ — in the vineyard rows — for 11 years, living at the company’s Healdsburg property, until November 2021.

“Honestly, the company treated us unjustly,” he said, speaking in Spanish.

According to the settlement, which was finalized June 27, on average, workers covered by the settlement will receive a net sum of at least $1,485.

A call to Vino Farms seeking comment was directed to the company’s human resources director, Veronica Natera.

“We have no comment,” she said Friday.

Marissa Ledbetter Foster, vice president of operations and a partner at Vino Farms, and also chair of the Sonoma County Winegrowers board of directors, was on a family trip and could not be reached for comment.

The suit alleged that Vino Farms did not pay farmworkers for all the hours they worked, including for overtime; that the company did not provide meal breaks or rest periods, and that it required workers to buy tools without compensating them.

The suit originally sought a jury trial, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys estimated a maximum “plausible“ award of $8.8 million. But the attorneys said that after factoring in various risks associated with continued litigation, the $1.4 settlement was “reasonable.”

A “very, very significant risk factor,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in their settlement proposal, was that “there is no evidence that a court or commissioner had informed the defendant that its conduct violated the labor code.”

Scott Leviant, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an interview: “You can’t know today what will happen in the future so you have to try and estimate the risk and decide what does that do to the value (of a potential award) compared to what you can get in the settlement.”

After attorney and other fees, the workers will divide just under $800,000.

“We think it was a pretty good value for the people involved, it’s one that we are pleased to stand behind,” Leviant, of the Los Angeles law firm, Moon & Yang, said of the settlement.

In April, about 100 former and current Vino Farms’ farmworkers and their advocates protested at the company’s Healdsburg location. They said the company uses synthetic sprays such as Roundup, which has been linked to higher cancer risk and that workers often have to apply those chemicals without much protective gear.

They also said that Vino supervisors often prohibit water breaks during the hottest, busiest times of harvest; that the company has used temporary agricultural workers to illegally replace longtime field employees; and that workers have been retaliated against for pointing out those issues.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor penalized Vino Farms for giving preferential treatment to temporary agricultural workers over local workers by providing them more hours and better wages.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of concerns from workers at Vino Farms here that are very similar,” said Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, a labor advocacy group.

“Our question is will the biggest clients of Vino Farms continue to stand by Vino Farms,” Bell Alper said, “or will they do the right thing and listen to the workers to make sure that the people who tend to the grapes for their wine are respected.”

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